Food banks have a somewhat paradoxical measurement of success: if they succeed, they go out of business. But that is the ultimate goal, says Tania Little, Chief Development and Partnership Officer of Food Banks Canada. This is a result of Food Banks Canada’s approach to addressing hunger in the country. First, make sure Canadians have access to nutritious food so no one goes hungry; second, address systemic issues that contribute to food insecurity in the first place. Neither of these goals are easy to achieve, but both are clearly necessary given the nearly 10% of Canadians facing food insecurity today.
“We don’t want to be in business, but we also don’t want anybody starving while we figure out all the solutions that need to get put in place,” says Little. Each month, there are over 1.1million visits to food banks across Canada. Keeping that many people fed is no small task, especially in a pandemic. Luckily, Canadian food banks have had decades of experience.
Food banks made an appearance in Canada forty years ago when Edmonton’s Food Bank was first established. Many food banks sprung up across the country in the following years. Ten years later, the food banks came together and decided there was a need for representation at the national level. Food Banks Canada (formerly the Canadian Association of Food Banks) was created in response. They provide national leadership and help add structure and organization to the community food movement. Food Banks Canada tracks client trends to better understand the demographics represented and identify intersectionality in food insecurity. These data points are central to understanding and actively addressing systemic issues through policy changes.
Food insecurity is a multi-faceted problem, but the single biggest factor is income. Income insufficiency is a difficult problem to address. “If poverty wasn’t a big wicked problem, we would’ve solved it already,” says Little. If people struggle to make ends meet, they may not be able to buy food.
Many factors contribute to an individual’s economic stability and independence, including stable employment, affordable housing, and access to childcare. There is no clear solution to poverty, but policy change plays an integral role in moving away from poverty and toward food security.
As COVID decimates industries like tourism and hospitality, economic impacts have rippled through entire communities. Consider the restaurant industry. Little notes that 10% of restaurants have permanently closed because of the pandemic with another potential 10-15% of restaurants unable to return to business in a post-pandemic world. For each of those restaurants, countless staff have lost their jobs, and people employed in the restaurant supply chain feel impacts, too. Those restaurants will no longer be purchasing from food producers or the alcohol industry, for example. This means a huge number of people have become more economically vulnerable and will stay vulnerable through a recovering economy.
Food banks saw impacts of the pandemic in their own workforce as well. Many volunteers, who Little says are the “the engine and the heart of the food bank,” are considered high-risk individuals due to their age. Vulnerable volunteers rightly began staying home to protect themselves and others from the disease. Food banks also had to begin implementing accommodations to make sure their spaces remained safe and accessible to clients during the pandemic.
Food banks across the country adapted quickly. An example of this was the Calgary Food Bank, which shut down for three days to completely rearrange its warehouse operations, to create more space and add markings on the floor. They were able to safely keep their doors open to both clients and volunteers because of this. Edmonton’s Food Bank began doing mobile clinics and began a home delivery program so that no one would have to take transit or be in lines to access food. Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank partnered with community libraries so that the library hubs could become food hubs in people's local communities—again saving them time using transit or taking additional risks.
From these cases, it’s clear that innovation has allowed food banks across Canada to keep their doors open. They’ve been able to keep people fed even in a pandemic, which is exactly when Canadians have needed those doors to be open the most.
We hope, in the kindest way possible, that Food Banks Canada will one day soon be out of business.